Heaven in ordinary

84 miles, about 240,000 steps (thanks Fitbit!), nine days, sixteen walking companions (plus a dog), through marsh  and valley, along road and river, over hill and stile, in city and country, town and village … to end at the appropriately named Wallsend around 2pm this afternoon!

It is finished.

My feet were particularly sore after a lot of pavement pounding today along very ordinary streets and paths through Newcastle.  That’s not to say there weren’t some glory moments, such as the Swedish deli we came across, the views of the Tyne, the fisherman who caught a crab as we passed and the Quayside where we timed it just right to see the Millennium Bridge in action!  But after all I’ve seen over the past nine days, the end of the walk4andy felt very … well, ordinary.  The pathways and pavements could easily have been in Leicester and looked very similar to the ones I walked just two weeks ago to get to Mountsorrel in fact.

There was something very ordinary about walking that last section with just my family too, with Wendy my wife, and my two daughters Erica and Hilary.  All of us found it a bit wearing and hard-going on the feet and there were the usual family arguments as we began to rub each other up the wrong way.  All very ordinary.

We arrived at Segedunum to see where the Wall ended and the fort has been partly excavated and we wandered round the excellent exhibition there.  Again it all felt like a very ordinary family day out.  And yet it was anything but.  I had just walked 84 miles across the country from one coast to the other, in memory of Andy and raising awareness (I hope) and money (about £2500 I think now) for VHL.

My pilgrimage had come to an end in a rather unspectacular way with a pot of tea and a plate of scrambled eggs on toast!

Then after waving goodbye to Wendy and Erica at Newcastle station, Hilary and I went to evening prayer at St Nicholas’ Cathedral, again the routine ordinary prayers said day in day out by Anglicans all over the place.

But in its very ordinariness I think there was something quite extraordinary going on.  I have said how much I don’t want this journey to end, and the challenge with these sorts of experiences is always how to carry them back into ‘ordinary life’.  Here today I found the ordinary right here in the extraordinary journey and when I let go of my anxiety for some amazing bolt-of-lightning revelation of what this has all been about, I saw the beauty in the ordinariness and felt the peace that came from it.

Towards the end of Andy’s life, it was the very ordinary things that made him happy – the bacon sandwich, a visit from a friend, the trip out to do a bit of shopping, the Earl Grey tea and proper coffee.

It is not for nothing that George Herbert, another of my favourite poets, described prayer as ‘heaven in ordinary’.  This whole walk4andy has been one long prayer, a prayer for my family and for all those struggling with VHL, a prayer for myself and my struggles with grief, a prayer for the church and the churches I have had contact with en route, a prayer for God’s kingdom to come – in me, in us and in our broken world. #thykingdomcome

May that prayer continue to grow and bear fruit as I return home, the kind of prayer George Herbert also called ‘The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage’ and yes, ‘heaven in ordinary’.

 

 

Sworn Brothers

I am a big fan of the Game of Thrones.  For those who are not GoT fans, the stories by George R.R. Martin include ‘The Wall’, a huge edifice protecting southerners from the dangerous monsters north of the Wall. (I’d just like to point out that I am on the south side of the Wall in this picture!)

The Wall is manned by the Night’s Watch, a band of sworn brothers from here there and everywhere, of every race and class.

The reason I tell you this is because the Wall in GoT was inspired by Hadrian’s Wall.  I have been reading a bit about the people who guarded it, the auxiliary units made up of a mixture of people from across the empire and more locally.  The old gods and the new are worshipped together.  Few would choose to go to this Godforsaken outpost of the empire, the back of beyond, about as far as you could get from civilization in Rome.

Of course, many now choose to visit this beautiful part of the country.  Today I was delighted to be joined on my Wall by family members from Leicester and London, some of whom are facing their own battles right now and so it was really special that they gave up time to come and walk.   I was also joined by a friend from north of the border, a brother in faith, who I haven’t seen for ages and so it was very special to catch up, put the world to rights and to pray together.

But the big surprise was at Birdoswald where I saw again the party from Argentina I had met on day one at the Cathedral.  Not only was it a joy to reconnect but also humbling to have Danny pray for me out on the Wall.

The sworn brothers of the Night’s Watch abandon their old lives to ‘take the black’.  They form a new family based on the vows they have made and their common purpose to protect the Wall and guard against evil.  They’ve got one another’s back.  Our police and armed forces do a not dissimilar job, much of which goes unseen, and for which we should be grateful.

I had a wonderful company of ‘sworn brothers’ on the Wall today, people who have got my back just as Andy did when I was growing up, people who will love and protect me, who will pray for me and walk with me, and for whom I am grateful.

At the end of the day outside Greenhead Church, Nathan and I said evening prayer together in the warm late afternoon sun.  I was reminded of the words of the evening service of compline which includes the prayer:

As the night watch looks for the morning

So do we look for you, O Christ.

Psalm 65

This morning a friend sent me some verses from Psalm 65 and they were so appropriate as I walked I thought I would add them here with pictures from today’s walk (amazingly a dry one!)

‘The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.’

Ubi vallum?

Day Two was set to be a hot one so we decided to leave Burgh earlier than the bus would have got us there and to take a taxi instead.  I say ‘we’ as today I was delighted to have the company of Julie and Ian Paton from St Denys who came all the way up from Leicester to walk with me.  Ian and I first spoke about doing the #walk4andy some years back on a church sponsored walk closer to home and so it was very special to have them join me.

We had lots of fun and the time passed quickly on this relatively short part of the walk.  However, I think they were a bit disappointed not to see much of the Wall!  I know how they feel.  It has been puzzling me that here I am at the end of Day Two and I have yet to see anything resembling what I thought Hadrian’s Wall (Vallum Aelium for Latin fans!) was all about.

Roman stone in St Michael’s Church

In fact, we have seen a fair bit of the Wall but not perhaps in the form we were expecting.  St Michael’s Church in Burgh and St Mary’s Beaumont were both built with stone pilfered from the Wall.  I was so relieved to find St Michael’s open this morning so I could see inside this beautiful little church and the terrific display they have of its history.

 

St Mary’s Beaumont
Drumburgh ‘Castle’

Many of the old houses and farm walls probably also make use of stones taken from the Wall when it fell into disuse.  We just wouldn’t necessarily have known they were there.  They might just look like any other stone wall.

 

This set me thinking again.  The Bible calls us ‘living stones’.  Our purpose in life is to be part of something bigger, to be built into something amazing – a home for God’s Spirit – and every stone has a part to play.  Look at Danny Dyer’s discovery that his ancestors included King Edward III, and therefore also his grandfather Edward I who died in Burgh by Sands and was laid in St Michael’s Church before being carried back to London to be buried.

Those ordinary stones I’ve ignored today, while walking past engrossed in conversation, could well have been part of Hadrian’s Wall in their past and played a significant part in our national history.  How many ‘dotty old ladies’ or ‘confused old men’ do we as a society  dismiss as unimportant without stopping to find out their past?  For that matter, how many younger people do we dismiss as drunk when they are in fact suffering from VHL or other similar conditions?

I am looking forward to seeing the Wall ‘intactum’ but it’s perhaps good to begin with a reminder not to overlook the possibility that sometimes the most significant stones might not be in the most obvious of places.

St Kentigern Cahpel in St Michael’s Church

And today’s part of the Celtic prayer:

 

You are the light that shines in dark

You are the heart’s eternal spark

 

 

Travelling Companions

One thing I am finding it hard to get away from is the sense that my #walk4andy is no longer just a walk but a pilgrimage.  The idea was sown in my mind by our local Catholic priest who rang me after reading about the walk to offer me sponsorship from the church’s Pilgrimage Fund.  That was deeply humbling and left me wondering whether he was right.

IMG_0426
Rolo my companion up Mam Tor who will not be joining me on Hadrian’s Wall – I don’t think his little legs could cope!

I have known for some time that the journey is going to be not just physically challenging but also very emotional.  And for that reason, I’m thankful that I won’t be alone for much of the time.  Lots of friends and family have been contacting me in the last week or so to offer their companionship on the journey for a day or two.  It will be wonderful to see some faces I haven’t seen for many years, and maybe even to meet new ones.

Andy getting me in a ‘friendly’ headlock

But even on the days when I am walking by myself, I won’t be alone.  I will be walking with Andy every step of the way.  He will be in my thoughts and prayers, my inspiration, throughout.  And as I learn from the peace he found trusting that God was there walking with him through the challenges he faced, I will be praying that I and others will know God’s presence and the companionship of the risen Jesus – #thykingdomcome.

The Romans on the Wall would have understood the implications of the word ‘companion’ – cum pane – literally ‘with bread’.  Companions were those you shared your bread with.  It will be very special for me to begin the whole #walk4andy by breaking bread with other Christians at Carlisle Cathedral on Ascension Day.  It’s one of those times when I feel very aware of those who have done the same before me and those who are doing the same thing hundreds of miles away.  There is a strong sense of being united in the bread we share.

Back at St Denys in Evington my companions in faith will also be sharing bread and maybe even some sparkling wine on Thursday morning to celebrate Jesus’ ascension, before they set off on their own prayer walks round the parish, one in the Spirit, wherever we are.

Thy Kingdom Come

St Denys Prayer Gateway

It wasn’t planned that my #walk4andy would coincide with an important time of prayer in the life of the Church I am part of, but it’s one of those ‘God-incidences’ which have been a feature of my life.

I really couldn’t believe it at first when I discovered that Day One of my walk was Ascension Day, the day the Church remembers Jesus returning to heaven, complete with pretty pink toes dangling down through the clouds if some of the paintings and windows are to be taken seriously!  In fact, this was a key moment in the life of the disciples.  Just imagine the roller coaster they had been on, from their great optimism for Jesus’ victory over their Roman oppressors, through watching him die a criminal’s death on the cross while they all ran away and hid, to seeing him again in his risen body and knowing the assurance that death had been defeated.  Now to lose him again must have been hard to bear.

They waited, all gathered together, many of them I’m sure clueless about what they were in fact waiting for.  But as they waited, they prayed.  And so for generations Christians have observed a special time of prayer between Ascension and Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and gave them a fresh hope and confidence.

Thy Kingdom Come is the title of the prayer campaign that the Archbishops of the Church of England have launched.  They are encouraging all Christians to #pledge2pray over these nine days for everyone to know the transforming love of God in Jesus.  You can hear the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, talking about his own experience here …

 

So, at my own church in Evington, there I’ll be some kind of prayer activity every day, lots of them involving walking (details are on our Facebook page here).  We’ll be praying for our local schools, the people who live on the streets of our parish, and our local hospital and shops too.

Meanwhile, up on Hadrian’s Wall, I will be praying day by day as I walk, that those I know and love will also experience the amazing and transforming love of Jesus, as Andy himself did.  What an amazing legacy that would be!